Thursday, October 29, 2015

Nick Neely: Why Write About Animals

I pose the question, taking my cue and much else from John Berger’s seminal, mildly elliptical essay “Why Look at Animals?” As it happens, much of my writing thus far in life has been about fauna, and yet I have never sat down for long to explore the implications. Why do I write nonfiction about animals, and why do we? What are the ethical considerations? Of course, there is a vast field of animal studies out there, impressive and growing, and I am no expert, only an enthusiast. Fundamentally, for me the compulsion to conjure beasts is entirely wrapped up in nature/nurture: I had the luxury to fall into animals as a kid (I had an knack for spotting them, and often the patience to observe them), and I never stopped looking.

Then again: How can we not write of animals? As you know, some of the earliest human-made images were the beasts on the walls of the cave in Lascaux, France, painted in pigments: predominantly horses, stags, and bulls, but also felines, a bird, a bear, a rhinoceros. This was writing before writing, if you will (and this text was open to the public until our exhalations began to damage the walls, to erase it). These and other early animals drawings are variously interpreted as trance visions, depictions of constellations, etc. But they were also just what was everywhere around. Animals lived at the edge of the camp, or even within the same cave. “What distinguished man [people!] from animals was the human capacity for symbolic thought,” Berger notes in “Why Look at Animals?” “Yet the first symbols were animals. What distinguished men from animals was born of their relationship with them.”

With the advent of agriculture and husbandry, this relationship became more familiar, in a sense, but also more fraught. Our ideas about animals began to shift. Not coincidentally, just about then writing came into being. The cuneiform script of the Sumerians emerged to tally and keep track of tradeable goods, which included domesticates. From the start, writing evoked animals, but it also signaled the transition of animals from independent subject to object, from mystery to commodity, in our perceptions.

More recently, animals have been relegated to further extremes: projected onto the cave wall as caricatures, or not all. We tend to see wild animals less, but love the idea of them more. “The urge to turn animals into either things or into people reflects the distance we have traveled in a generation or two,” writes Stephen Budiansky in The Covenant of the Wild, a book on my shelf. “We conveniently alternate between anthropomorphism and blindness.” On the one hand, the gazillion dollar pet industry and Pixarification of penguins and polar bears (animals as people). On the other, anonymous shrink-wrapped meat (a thing, I suppose).

As Berger posits, quite elementally, “No animal confirms man, either positively or negatively. The animal can be killed and eaten so that its energy is added to that which the hunter already possesses. The animal can be tamed so that it supplies and work for the peasant. But always its lack of language, its silence, guarantees its distance, its distinctness, its exclusion, from and of man.” Since animals are a silent majority, and we can only ever project (onto) them, how do we negotiate between anthropomorphism and blindness so as to least marginalize them between the margins of our writing? How can we extract them from the practical clay of Sumerian tablets and today’s best-selling tablets?

One answer might be veracity: in paying rigorous attention to an animal’s features, describing it precisely, learning its biology. So very many resources have been devoted to the study of animals that the facts themselves, the stories of their attainment, have a life of their own. I do think it’s true that our admiration and respect for an animal grows as we discover more about it: That a hummingbird’s heart beats over a thousand times per minute, say. Or that a hummer can accelerate, in a dive, to 65 miles per hour, making it the fastest animal alive in proportion to its body length. It would also seem important to write about animals in the places where, increasingly, they actually live as their ranges shift in light of habitat alteration and climate change: liminal spaces like suburbia and muddy, thawing tundra.

But particulars of science and scrutiny aren’t everything, or the main. “Animals are always observed,” Berger notes. “The fact that they can observe us has lost all significance. They are the objects of our ever-extending knowledge. What we know about them is an index of our power, and thus an index of what separates us from them. The more we know, the further away they are.” So true. As we atomize an animal’s body and behavior, label every piece of it, we are not necessarily drawn closer to its essence, if that’s what you want to call it. Plus, the scientific and casual terms that describe animals are cast in the light of just one particular way of knowing.

Extending Berger’s language, maybe, at the same time, we need to know less. Maybe the less I know—the more I admit to that (and I do), and the more I play—the more I “get” animals. Ultimately, I think its incumbent of animal writing to leave the creature more mysterious, more animal, than it was found. What’s neat, if not needed, are “animal essays” rather than essays about animals, if that distinction makes sense—and an animal essay doesn’t have to include a critter to fit the category. Essays that don’t strive to contain. That aren’t zoos (the lions break out).

All this is to say that it’s not the worst idea to bring to animals something we feel is outside our normal selves. Our writing may not embody the animal, actually, but at least it’s doing something foreign, which is animal in a sense. The writing I admire is something I can’t predict or hypothesize; instead it acknowledges, through form or content, that we are still writing on the walls of a cave, the corners of which we cannot see, the confines of which we don’t even know. The most I can do is paint a few vivid pictures. Overlapping perhaps, but also free-floating in the dark.

I often wonder whether I shouldn’t devote more of my words to my fellow humans, who I love and worry about. I know I will do so in the future. But then I also remember that the fate of humans and animals is so entwined. To write of animals is to write, inevitably, of us. That mirror is there, if hidden. Berger again, in this wise essay, one you should read: “The reduction of the animal, which has a theoretical as well as economic history, is part of the same process as that by which men have been reduced to isolated productive and consuming units.” Pigeonholes, cubicles, cages … these things are not unrelated. To complexify animals is to watch out for ourselves.


Nick Neely’s essays (many of them on animals) are published or forthcoming in publications such as Kenyon Review, The Southern Review, The Missouri Review, and Harvard Review. He is the recipient of a Margery Davis Boyden Wilderness Writing Residency, a UC Berkeley-11th Hour Food and Farming Journalism Fellowship, and the 2015 John Burroughs Nature Essay Award. He is also the author of a new chapbook of essays, Chiton, and Other Creatures, just out this month from New Michigan Press. More of his work can be found on

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